D.C. Public Schools students have been out of class since March 16 due to the coronavirus outbreak.
When schools in Washington closed in the middle of March, Joseph Martin scrambled to start teaching online. He quickly adapted his class lessons, uploading math worksheets and videos of himself teaching to Microsoft Teams and ClassDojo for his second grade classes at Miner Elementary School in Kingman Park.
But students were not logging on.
He teamed up with school administrators to track down families, sorting through disconnected or incorrect phone numbers and showing up at the doorsteps of families he struggled to reach. After about a month, he could call or FaceTime all his students, but the vast majority still were not completing work. Again and again, Martin said, parents told him their families did not have computers or internet at home to finish assignments.
"They've missed so much," he said.
Families are expected to learn later this week if D.C. Public Schools students will return to classes for part of the week in the fall. But as coronavirus cases spike across the Washington region and beyond, the bulk of learning at the start of next school year will likely continue to happen online. That's why teachers, parents and legal advocates are pressuring D.C. Public Schools to equip each of the school system's more than 51,000 students with a laptop and internet access.
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said the system will provide technology for students who need it, and is surveying families about their needs. The system said it distributed 10,000 digital devices and 4,000 WiFi hotspots to students in the spring, and is investing $7 million on more devices for next school year as part of a three-year effort to issue a tablet to every student by 2022.
"DCPS is committed to promoting equity by ensuring every student has access to the technology devices and supports they need for a successful return to learning," Ferebee said.
But community members say some of the laptops or tablets issued to students in the spring were outdated or defective, and that schools did not have enough for each student who needed one. They worry the chasm between students whose families can afford technology and those who cannot will continue to widen, exacerbating existing educational inequities.
Ben Lookner, a special education teacher who in May left Browne Education Campus, said the school in Carver/Langston had 90 devices to distribute to about 400 students in preschool through 8th grade. Lookner said teachers were forced into hard decisions about which students would receive a device.
"It was like a macabre draft," he said. "It was just a really tough place to put teachers in, and it was a tough place to put students and families."
At Miner Elementary, Martin said families complained about broken devices, laptops that frequently froze or devices that were not compatible with Microsoft Teams, the online platform the school system uses for virtual learning. Some students tried reviewing assignments from cell phones, which do not provide the same functionality as a computer.
After schools closed, Martin said six of his 57 students consistently logged in to complete online assignments. He held two small classes from his home and gave his personal laptop to a student who had trouble accessing learning materials. Parents emailed students' assignments to Martin from work computers, because they did not have internet access at home.
Many of Martin's students started the school year performing well below grade level. Several students could not count to 100, so he spent the beginning of last school year reviewing kindergarten math concepts.
"They made so much progress," he said. "Now, to have this huge gap in learning, I'm concerned that there might be some regression."
Four advocacy groups — the Alliance for Excellent Education, the National Indian Education Association, the National Urban League and UnidosUS — released a study last week that showed Black, Latino and American Indian students were less likely than their white peers to have high-speed internet at home.
Of the 20,278 children in the District who do not have high-speed internet, 15,639 are Black and 2,863 were Latino, according to the study. Of the 8,685 children in the city who do not have a computer, 6,545 were Black and 1,358 were Latino.
The organizations called on Congress to approve a $2 billion measure that would infuse schools with money to purchase WiFi hotspots and digital devices.
"We cannot continue to overlook the disproportionate impact of this divide, especially as the new school year approaches," UnidosUS President Janet Murguía said in a statement.
Schools systems across the Washington region have made steep investments in technology in recent years to put devices in the hands of each student.
In Arlington County, students in the third grade and above are issued an iPad Air or Macbook. When schools closed in March, the public school system in Loudoun County ordered 15,000 Chromebooks, speeding up the timeline on a plan to equip students in third grade and above with a device.
KIPP DC, one of the largest charter school networks in the city, provided each of its 6,800 students with a device, said Scooter Ward, senior director of technology. During the school closures, Ward said KIPP mailed laptops to students and started a hotline for families that encountered technology troubles.
Hundreds of students were also relying on phones for internet access, Ward said. KIPP sent those families internet hotspots or directed them to Comcast, which is offering two months of free internet to low-income families.
D.C. Public Schools parent Alamaze King said she requested a laptop for her son, Avery, three times from Kelly Miller Middle School in Lincoln Heights since April — but was told the school had none left.
Avery tried to complete assignments from his iPhone 6, but the formatting on the screen would change and make the process more tedious. He tried using his older siblings' laptops, but they got tired of sharing. So Avery spent most of the spring completing pages of worksheets distributed by the school system, which were available at schools or could be downloaded.
King said she accessed some of the assignments for her son on a work computer, during her overnight shift as a security guard. Avery finished several packets, which are still sitting on the family's kitchen table.
King said her son was already behind in school and has ADHD, depression and anxiety. She said her family should be able to help purchase a device for Avery for the upcoming school year, after they received a boost through the weekly additional $600 unemployment benefit provided as part of a federal relief package.
"I'm praying we're able to pull it together and move him forward," she said.